Eighty-five seasons, 19 head coaches, 2,070 games, five Southern Conference titles, eight ACC Tournament titles, 18 All-Americans, four national players of the year.
That’s where Duke basketball stood on the evening of April 1, 1991. Duke had been playing basketball a long time and at a pretty high level. By almost any metric Duke was an elite program.
But there was one thing missing, one huge gap on the resume.
Duke had played for the NCAA title four times. The Blue Devils came close in 1978, very close in 1986, not very close in 1964 and not remotely close in 1990.
Now Duke had another chance. Would Duke end the drought and win its first national title? Or would Duke fall victim to a cruel April Fool’s joke?
Forty-seven thousand people in the Indianapolis RCA Dome and millions more on TV were about to find out.
Almost 30 years later many remember that title game for two seconds of brilliance and thirty-nine minutes and fifty-eight seconds of other-stuff-happened.
But that other stuff decided who cut down the nets in victory and who hung their heads in defeat.
Let’s set the stage. Kansas was coming into the game off upset wins over a trio of top-five teams, Indiana, Arkansas and North Carolina, while Duke was coming in off an epic takedown of undefeated UNLV.
But Kansas ended its Saturday night semifinal game almost three hours earlier than Duke and that meant a more rested team going into Monday’s title game. In addition, Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley both had played 40 minutes against the Runnin’ Rebels. Hurley and Johnny Dawkins might well be the best-conditioned athletes Mike Krzyzewski has ever had at Duke. Had basketball not called Hurley could have been a cross-country All-American. He could run all day.
Laettner certainly wasn’t poorly conditioned. But he had spent 40 minutes in a tug of war against 250-pound Larry Johnson, 220-pound George Ackles and 265-pound Elmore Spencer. He needed more than 48 hours to recover from that.
But 48 hours was what he had.
Finally the long wait ended and the teams tipped it off. Duke drew first blood on a Greg Koubek three-pointer. After a Kansas foul shot, Koubek scored again and Duke was up 5-1.
Koubek was a senior playing in his fourth Final Four, the first player to accomplish that feat. He wouldn’t score again in the title game but he did give Duke a lead it would never relinquish.
Then came THE PLAY.
Duke rebounded a Kansas miss, getting the ball to Hurley on the break. Hurley immediately launched an apparently errant pass 60 or so feet down court, a pass headed for the seats. Grant Hill somehow soared high enough to catch up with the pass, cradle it in his right hand and slam it down.
An iconic dunk in NCAA Tournament history, Duke history, Grant Hill history.
A devastated Kansas team gave up and faded away.
Um, actually not.
I talked to Hill about this play a few years ago.
“I didn’t realize it was anything special at the time. I just went back down the court and played defense. I remember thinking this was a really bad pass from Bobby. Then I forgot about it.”
Kansas agreed. It seemed to barely register on their radar. They came right down and scored on a Terry Brown jumper, then Mark Randall inside and Randall again and it was 9-7 Duke.
Randall was a McDonald’s All-America and a former Duke recruiting target. He played for Krzyzewski in the 1990 FIBA World Championships, as did Laettner.
In other words, no introductions needed.
Laettner and Randall were the only significant post presences on their respective teams and their matchup was a compelling one.
Krzyzewski tried to even the odds by using media timeouts to buy extra rest for Laettner. Krzyzewski sat Laettner down for Crawford Palmer barely three minutes into the game, just before the first media timeout.
Krzyzewski has always maintained that he substitutes by feel but this time he had a plan. Subbing for Laettner right before the media timeouts could give him three-or so minutes of real-time rest, while missing only a few possessions of actual game action.
Laettner would end up playing 32 minutes, Palmer nine, with one minute of twin towers.
Laettner came back in refreshed and took over the game for about five minutes. He hit two foul shots to put Duke up 11-7, a field goal for 13-10, two more foul shots for 20-13 and two more for 22-18.
Hurley also had a 3-pointer in that span.
But Kansas kept it close. Randall made it 22-20 when a less-remember pivot point took place.
Sophomore guard Billy McCaffrey didn’t do much against UNLV’s athletic wings, five points in 14 minutes.
But Kansas was a matchup better suited to his ability to find and exploit small seams in the defense.
McCaffrey came in and scored to make it 24-20. Hurley extended the lead to six but Terry Brown hit a two and a three and the lead was down to a point, 26-25, the closest it had been since Koubek’s opening 3.
Duke closed the half the way a championship team closes a half. Hurley hit a 3, Laettner added two foul shots, then McCaffrey added five points. Thomas Hill hit a 3-pointer right before the buzzer and Duke went into the intermission up 42-34.
Randall helped keep it close with the only made 3-point shot of his college career.
Eight point lead. Comfortable?
Not really. Kansas had trailed Arkansas by 12 at the half and won the second half 58-34. They also overcame several deficits against North Carolina.
In other words Duke was going to have to do more than just massage the clock.
Mike Maddox opened the second-half with a bucket for the Jayhawks. The 6-7 Maddox was the only hold-over from Kansas’ 1988 title team—Randle sat out that season with an injury. Despite a bad back he played 19 gutty minutes.
Grant Hill answered with a steal-layup combo before Randall scored twice and it was 44-40.
McCaffrey scored again but Laettner sat down with his third foul.
Down six, with Laettner out. A perfect time for a Jayhawks comeback. But Randall missed both foul shots—Kansas was 4-for-8 from the line in this game. McCaffrey hit another 3 and Hurley connected with Brian Davis for a dunk and Duke was up 53-43, its first double-digit lead.
By the the time Laettner returned Duke had actually extended its margin.
Kansas went cold, while Hurley, Laettner and McCaffrey added to Duke’s lead.
It was 65-51 with about six minutes left.
The Jayhawks had one run left in them, one fueled with a physical defense. Depending on one’s perspective either the officials swallowed their whistles or Duke didn’t adequately respond to the increased physicality. It didn’t help that Grant Hill missed five of six foul shots, one the first end of a one-and-one.
It was 70-59, then 70-61, then 70-63, then 70-65 after a McCaffrey turnover led to a Kansas basket.
Less than 40 seconds. But Duke looked tired and tight, not a good combination.
Kansas’ press almost forced another turnover. Thomas Hill was forced to call a timeout in the backcourt just before a 10-second violation, with 25.7 seconds left.
Krzyzewski had one trick left in his bag. Duke sent Davis long and Grant hit the TD pass. Davis dunk, 72-65, ball game.
This time Krzyzewski joined in the celebration, as the CBS cameras captured Davis saying “we got it for you” to his head coach.
“It’s never been a monkey on my back,” he said right after the game. “I’m so happy for our guys. I am not sure anyone has ever played harder for a national championship.”
Again Duke greatly helped its cause from the foul line, 20-of-28, with Laettner going 12-for-12. Laettner and Randall each had 18 points and 10 rebounds. Hurley again went 40 minutes, 12 points, nine assists, three turnovers.
McCaffrey had 16 points and joined Laettner, Hurley, Randall and UNLV’s Anderson Hunt on the all Final Four team.
Laettner was named Most Outstanding Player.
Kansas outrebounded Duke 32-30 and had four fewer turnovers. But Duke shot 56 percent from the field, Kansas 41 percent and Duke’s defense had a lot to do with that 41 percent.
“For most of the tournament we became so focused,” Grant Hill said following the game. “We wanted to play defense, we wanted to run down the court, we wanted to play well and wanted to win the national championship. We did everything possible to win it.”
Come see us on the boards as we relive it!